About five years ago Emily Czerniakowski started a business with her best friend, Cassie Russo. On the surface, they seem like unlikely friends, Emily describes herself as shy and reserved while Cassie is outgoing and full of energy. “She’s the kind of person you notice when she comes into a room,” says Emily. They met when they were in the same audition group for a dance team in Philadelphia. They both made the team and quickly became best friends. Their story is one of ambition, trust and adventure. I had the opportunity to talk with Emily about their journey building a business and the success of their dance studio, CaRu Entertainment.
Not long after their newfound friendship, they were at lunch and started talking about their shared dream to someday start a business together. Their hometowns were only about 40 minutes apart,
“We thought, how cool would that be, to open a business and be where our two families are?”
From the time of that conversation to today, Emily and Cassie have had their share of adventures. One such adventure got them hired as makeup artists for a magazine photo shoot with no experience. The (successful) shoot was followed by a celebratory shopping excursion where a store clerk asked them if they were sisters.
“We told him we owned a business together…a dance and entertainment company. And we did not!”
This response, while blurted out as a joke, set something in motion for the two women. While the realization of their dream still seemed far off in the distance, they knew it was something they wanted to do.
But first, life took them down different paths. Emily finished her master’s degree and was working in fundraising, while Cassie had moved to New York City to be a professional dancer. While in New York, Cassie started CaRu Entertainment out of her small apartment. She worked with a group of dancers that she would choreograph, they would put on concerts at local venues, charity events, and fashion shows. It was then, that they started to realize their individual strengths.
“She would perform and choreograph, and I would do the website and all of the marketing communications.”
While this was the beginning for CaRu, it took one more step for Emily and Cassie to realize that this could be the company they had always dreamed of running together.
“I ended up deciding to go back to school for a third time to get a Master’s in Journalism and moved to Syracuse—that was the farthest we ever were apart.”
Emily was a few months away from graduating when she got a call from Cassie who said, “I want to move out of New York City. Let’s open a dance studio together.” Emily, who had been feeling like broadcasting was not the right path, said, “I’m in.”
By August 2011 (four months after Cassie’s phone call), they had rented a storefront and by September 2011 they officially opened the doors to CaRu Entertainment. It started as a local dance studio with dance classes for all ages and quickly became a nationally ranked dance studio.
“Cassie’s choreography is so innovative and on another level, she really pushes dancers to explore the art, explore different emotional scenarios and looks at dancing as storytelling and not just doing movements to music.”
As their business grew, Emily and Cassie started to feel like they were doing something bigger than running a dance studio,
“We really felt like what we are doing was empowering young people to be confident and be productive individuals in and out of the studio.”
It became their mission to be role models and a source of mentorship and guidance for young women.
“We want it to be a place where women can be themselves and explore who they are as individuals to then go out in the world and do great things.”
Emily attributes CaRu’s success to the “yin yang” partnership she has with Cassie.
“We are two vastly different people but we complement each other really well.”
This is represented by their roles in the business. Emily manages the entire backend of the business from communications, billing, client relations and program development while Cassie is the professional choreographer and face of the business.
“She thinks I do the heavy lifting and I think she does the heavy lifting.”
Speaking of heavy lifting, when they started their business Emily was doing everything manually. Every invoice, every excel spreadsheet, every bill, every receipt, and every credit card transaction. If she had a family that requested automatic monthly billing, she would have to sit down one day a month and manually process each credit card payment. With the business growing, this quickly became unsustainable. In addition to the time drain this manual process created, Emily was starting to plan and prepare for a huge life change by way of a growing family with her daughter on the way.
“I knew what we really needed was something cloud-based, that could automate the things that I was doing manually, without charging us too much.”
Emily researched a number of solutions and through that research got in contact with the team at PaySimple.
“I liked the look and feel of it, it seemed fresh and new and I just felt I’d be able to do automated payments and also be able to keep everything in a cloud-based system that I could access on my phone or my computer and our clients found it very easy to use.”
The Five-Year Milestone
In CaRu’s five-year business plan they had made plans to do something philanthropic, so in May of 2016 they launched their first-ever charity dance showcase under the cooperative banner of The East Coast Dance Confederation. They brought together 10 leading studios from all across Pennsylvania and New Jersey to support the Boys and Girls Club of America. They were able to raise and donate $3600 to their local Boys and Girls Club as well as collect 300 gently used dance costumes for a company that distributes them to underfunded studios and art programs around the region.
“That was probably one of our proudest moments. That moment where we had all of the studios together doing really good work under the umbrella of the industry we love, that’s the point where we felt like we could feel good about what we had accomplished over these first five years.”
Enter, the Online Store
While their charity event proved a success, they wanted to improve the registration and ticket purchase process with the upcoming showcase for their own studio. Around this time, we were launching our new Online Store and CaRu’s upcoming showcase was a great fit for the new feature.
“That has just been a whole new ballgame for us. I set up tickets through [the Online Store] and we didn’t have even one hiccup. Everyone got it and plugged in their information. We got lots of compliments about it.”
Emily then took an extra step to enhance her client’s experience and sent them a digital version of the tickets through email so that on the night of the show people came with tickets on their phones or that they had printed.
“It was really seamless and I think, it seemed like the experience they expected.”
Happy with their first test, Emily plans to use the Online Store to market and sell their summer open-class offerings.
“These are sometimes people that we don’t know very well…with the Online Store they can pay ahead so I can see who is registering for each class and who has paid so that I can inform my instructors. We’re really excited about trying this, this summer.”
In addition to offering registration for their open classes online, they also are looking at new opportunities for revenue and plan to start selling some of their branded products in their Online Store alongside the classes they offer.
“We have stuff that just kind of sits there and it’s all branded and we really have no way of selling it or showcasing it. So it might be a really neat way for people to find our stuff and hopefully purchase it.”
Emily’s Advice for New Business Owners
“I’d say two things:
The encouragement piece would be to trust in the process and do what you know how to do and do it well. If you do this, the other things will tend to fall into place. It’s scary when you’re sitting inside a storefront and you unlock your door for the first time and you think, ‘Is anybody going to walk through?’ There’s a lot you can’t control, so do what you can and then realize that the pieces will fall into place if you’re open to it.
Then, my biggest piece of advice is to think about scalability. That’s something we didn’t think about in the very beginning. If you’re wanting to start a business, think about something that is scalable and don’t sell yourself short.”
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